RICHMOND — For years, prison officials in Virginia have focused on visitors as they sought to crack down on the flow of drugs and contraband to incarcerated people.
They strip-searched children, banned menstruating women from wearing tampons and limited the number of people prisoners could put on their visitors list.
So when the coronavirus pandemic hit, halting all in-person visitation for more than a year, did drugs suddenly become scarce behind bars?
Not really, according to data tracked by the Virginia Department of Corrections. The records show the rate of positive drug tests ticked up while the number of drug seizures and overdoses dipped only slightly.
The results of what was effectively an unplanned experiment come as no surprise to prisoners, advocates and employees in the facilities, who say it’s common knowledge within the system that corrupt staffers are largely to blame for the problem.
“The reality is and always has been that the overwhelming majority of contraband that enters prisons comes through staff,” said Shawn Weneta, who served 16 years in Virginia prisons before he was conditionally pardoned last year. “It was just a known fact, part of the everyday thing — like speeding on the highway.”
Three current and former Department of Corrections employees agreed with Weneta’s assessment, pointing to low pay, low morale and lax security screening of staff that makes bringing contraband into facilities both tempting and easy.
“Think about it, basically they send you through a metal detector — a lot of places you don’t have to take off your shoes; it’s just a pat down. People just tape it somewhere,” said a corrections sergeant, who spoke on the condition that he not be named because he feared retaliation by administrators.
Department of Corrections spokeswoman Lisa Kinney did not respond directly to questions about whether administrators share the view that staff members are largely to blame for contraband entering facilities, saying only that the department takes immediate action if an employee is caught or suspected of bringing in drugs.
“If the introduction of contraband is confirmed, the local commonwealth’s attorney decides whether to bring criminal charges,” Kinney said.
Prosecutors have brought a variety of cases against corrections officers and other staff over the years. A former guard at Red Onion State Prison, a maximum security facility in Wise County, pleaded guilty earlier this year to bringing tobacco, marijuana, suboxone, MDMA and heroin to inmates. A high-profile bust in 2016 saw three guards at the Buckingham Correctional Facility accused of working with a multi-state gang to smuggle drugs into the facility.
Kinney was unable to provide statics showing how often staff are disciplined or dismissed for such misconduct. In a series of emails, she emphasized alternative avenues for drugs to enter facilities in the absence of visitation, including the mail.
At most facilities, prisoners are provided photocopies of incoming letters and cards, with the originals destroyed — a change that was implemented in 2017 to prevent drug-soaked papers from reaching prisoners. But Kinney said items that can’t be photocopied —such as books, newspapers and magazines — continue to be a problem. She also said corrections officers have been finding drugs dropped at fences.
Prisoners and staff interviewed for this story said that while drugs do enter facilities in the way Kinney describes, they doubted it would account for most of the illegal drugs behind bars, especially given the requirement that all books and subscriptions be mailed directly from publishers.
They also noted it would be impossible to use the method to smuggle bulkier drugs like marijuana, which they said is prevalent enough in some facilities guards turn a blind eye when they smell it among prisoners.
Likewise, everyone interviewed acknowledged that drugs did come into facilities through visitation. But they said it accounts for a relatively small amount of the contraband that’s available at any given moment, which in addition to drugs includes cell phones, luxury headphones and cash.
Statistics on drug seizures shared by the Department of Corrections back up that account.
Total drug seizures logged by the department went from 967 in 2019 to 871 last year, when visitation was canceled 10 weeks into the year as the pandemic began. That represents a 10% drop, but it also came as the department saw the number of prisoners it was housing fall nearly 20%.
Drug overdoses logged by the department fell in 2020, but were still relatively consistent with 2018 numbers, going from 49 in 2018 to 87 in 2019 to 45 last year.
Finally, the percentage of positive drug tests ticked up from 2.5% to 2.9% in the 12 months since visitation was ended, according to the department, although Kinney noted fewer tests were conducted as a result of the pandemic.
While visitation does not appear to be a significant factor in the trends, it has been the overwhelming focus of the department’s efforts to crack down on drugs. Advocates say the push has come at the expense of incarcerated peoples’ ability to stay connected with family — something studies have found is an important factor in reducing recidivism.
In 2017, the department implemented a new policy that required prisoners to be strip searched and change into state-issued underwear and jumpsuits before entering the visitation room. After the visit, they change back into their standard prison clothes and undergo another strip search.
The next year, the department began banning women who were menstruating from wearing tampons, a policy that coincided with the use of new body scanning technology aimed at detecting contraband hidden in body cavities. “There have been many instances in which visitors have attempted to smuggle drugs into our prisons by concealing those drugs in a body cavity, including the vagina,” Kinney said at the time.
Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration quickly walked back the policy after it drew national attention, though prison officials have since said that if a scanner detects a tampon, the visit is only allowed to continue on a no-contact basis, either through a glass partition or video feed.
Beginning last year, the department began limiting each prisoners’ visitor list to 10 people, citing concerns that incarcerated people were setting up visits with people they didn’t really know with the sole goal of smuggling contraband.
“They’re ingenious,” Secretary of Public Safety Brian Moran said when the policy was announced. “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”
Later in the year, The Virginian-Pilot revealed prison staff had been subjecting people visiting loved ones to strip searches, threatening to permanently ban them from seeing their family members unless they consented. The paper reported minors ranging from infants to teenagers had been subjected to the practice.
Lawmakers banned the department from strip searching minors last year. Adults can still be strip searched but the department is prohibited from barring people from future visits if they refuse.
Shannon Ellis, a lawyer with the Legal Aid Justice Center who represents women incarcerated at the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women, said the crackdown on visitation has discouraged prisoners from seeing family members, making it more difficult to maintain relationships she says are critical to her clients’ mental health.
“The searches are sometimes so invasive that people will tell family members not to come because they don’t want them to be subjected to it,” she said.
She said it’s been easy for the state to blame prisoners for the contraband problem and hopes that the experience during the pandemic leads the Department of Corrections to focus on other avenues that don’t limit family connections.
“It’s a convenient narrative for DOC,” she said. “Once drugs get into prison, it’s hard to say how they got there. COVID has really changed that.”
Weneta, who helped launch a CPR program in response to overdoses before he was released and now works as a legislative liaison for the criminal justice reform group the Humanization Project, framed it as a life-and-death situation.
“People are dying because this contraband is coming in and officers are trying to turn a buck,” he said. “It’s disappointing and even shameful that DOC isn’t taking steps need to clamp down on staff because they’re embarrassed by the optics.”